conferring · differentiation · middle school · small group

Planning for Independent Writing Time: A Middle School Solution

The score was tied and I’d just taken my final timeout.  Six seconds remained on the clock.  Ten eighth grade girls stood in a semicircle before me.  Leaving my basketball whiteboard on the bench, I turned to meet their gaze.  “Okay girls,” I began, placing my hands on my knees, “Let’s inbound the ball and run our offense.  Just run the offense.  You know what to do.  Here we go.”  That was our plan.

I’ve realized over my decades in education that I’m a planner.  Big-time.  Perhaps you are, too? I find that I am able to be more relaxed and effective in the present when I have some type of plan for the future.

When I think back to my early days of teaching in a writing workshop, I remember devoting most or all of my planning time to devising a great 10-12 minute minilesson.  After careful planning, I would teach that lesson (over time becoming more proficient at actually confining it to 10-12 minutes), then I would send the kids off to write for 25-30 minutes…with, well, really no plan for that time. Other than to try to confer with as many writers as I could.  Which was sometimes only two. Which left me feeling frustrated. And stressed.  How can I get to all of them? I wondered. It felt exasperating at times.

As I have learned more about writing workshop, I have come to understand and appreciate the importance of feedback.  And I’ve learned that small groups, for example, offer an efficient and effective way to provide calibrated feedback to writers with similar needs. Yes, absolutely, right?  But the problem with trying to plan small groups in middle school was . . . well, a lack of time.  At least, a perceived lack of time.  I had read and heard that as a teacher, I should be collecting and carefully studying student work in order to plan out thoughtful strategy groups that would help to move each writer along.  However, with 80-110 students, this can be extraordinarily challenging; some might even say unrealistic.  Perhaps some of you reading this guiltily see yourself in this scenario?  Don’t worry, you are not alone.

So today, allow me to share an offense you can run tomorrow- one plan you can rely on that affords you a doable approach to planning for and providing feedback to all your writers.  Here we go:

Step One: Create a six-box grid and identify predictable issues.  Chances are at this point in the school year, you know a few things about your writers.  You also likely know what issues tend to be problematic for the grade level you teach.  Using those two funds of knowledge, simply write three of predictable problems or issues down in a grid with six boxes; say, on the left-hand side.  Leave the other three boxes blank (on the right side) for things that surprise you, that you didn’t predict. Now, let’s say you are teaching a unit on research-based information writing: You might list predictable issues like:

    • Elaborating with quotes, facts, and statistics
    • Using different text structures to teach
    • Narrowing the topic

Other issues might include, “Using transitions,” “Citing research,” or “Punctuation.” Knowing your writers, you might even jot down, “Trouble getting started” as a predictable issue.  Or maybe it is predictable that some writers will be ready for a challenge, such as “Weaving in narrative craft.” Again, use your experience and knowledge of your students to name three things you’re likely to see during today’s independent writing time.  The book, If-Then Curriculum (a supplement to the Teachers College Writing Units of Study kits), is an excellent resource for providing common issues middle school writers experience.

Now, I don’t spend a lot of time making these grids pretty. I keep it simple.  They tend to look something like this:


Step Two: Quickly research the room, jotting names in the grid.  Once you settle behaviors and students are into writing, spend five minutes or so researching the classroom.  Look over the shoulders of your writers and jot down names in the predetermined boxes you set up in your grid.  Be efficient and move quickly.  See any issues you didn’t predict?  Jot those issues, along with the names of students experiencing them, in the boxes you left blank on the right.  What if you look over the shoulders of some writers, and no issues are a match in this moment?  You can jot those names down at the bottom of the page, below your grid. Those can be your research-decide-teach conferences for this week.  As you research, try to imagine, “What is something- one thing- I could teach this writer that would make a difference?”


Step Three: Begin pulling small groups.  Now that you’ve set up a grid of predictable issues and researched the room, survey your research.  At this point, you can begin pulling small groups of students with common needs (maybe around 3 at a time).  Don’t worry if you feel nervous or do not have the perfect small group(s) planned!  As my colleague and writer Kate Roberts once said, “Doing terrible small groups is better than not pulling them at all.”  As Kate went on to explain, it is the act of attention, as well as the physical proximity (afforded by the small group structure) that matters.

During your planning for independent writing time, a few ways to think about quickly preparing for small groups might be:

    • Come with a strategy or strategies you can demonstrate (preferably one(s) you feel confident showing)- “Writers, watch me as I do this . . .Now you try…I’ll coach you…”
    • Find useful strategies!  Rely on resources such as the If-Then Curriculum Book, Jennifer Serravallo’s The Writing Strategies Book, or others to support you.
    • Bring a mentor text the students know and use it to explain an example of a strategy or writing move.
    • Think about relying on some coaching sessions- provide a tip or teaching point and coach in to each writer in-the-round, just like a basketball coach would from the sidelines. This in-the-moment feedback can be highly effective in supporting writing growth.

Once your grid is complete – Voila! – You probably now have a plan for independent writing time for the next several days.  You might strive for two small groups and two conferences per day (although that might feel overly ambitious at first).  You may also decide that these groups could become little courses, lasting multiple sessions.

This post is in no way intended to discourage teachers from studying and analyzing student work and using that work as a trusted source of information to support planning.  If there are structures in place at your school to support this work, that is great!  But having lived in the middle school world for over 25 years, I realize that sometimes we need a back-up; a doable, achievable plan that we can rely on to help us provide differentiated feedback to all of our writers in the time our schedule allows. If this plan feels doable to you, I encourage you to try it out.  Make it your own.  For feedback does, indeed matter.  And just think what becomes possible if providing consistent feedback becomes a habit?  As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

During those last six seconds of that basketball game, I remember sitting down on the bench, confident my girls knew the plan.  And they did.  I don’t remember all going perfectly, but what mattered is a plan was in place. No, things don’t always go perfectly. But with a commitment and a plan, perhaps anything becomes possible… even providing feedback to all writers.


3 thoughts on “Planning for Independent Writing Time: A Middle School Solution

  1. Love this post! It is so practical and useful! I love that you show us a notebook with lines drawn instead of a permanent document. And, you lay out the steps in a way that teacher’s can just jump in and try it! Thank you so much for this post that I will copy, carry with me, and reread to remind myself how to keep my own coaching real!


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